Many of us just want to do our part to help keep the environment and ourselves healthy. Eco-friendly practices and products can help us do that, but we still need to be conscious of the additional effects they may have.
Many green products and habits are actually trade-offs; meaning they might reduce or do away with one environmentally harmful effect while actually increasing other negative effects. Sometimes this is okay, depending on the importance of each effect and our ability to adapt to them. Other times, we might be going too green for our own good. But to determine which trade-offs are worthwhile, we first need to be aware of them, to begin with.
The following are some examples of trade-offs and unintended consequences associated with going maybe a little too green.
Weighing Initial Costs with Long-Term Benefits
Sometimes a large initial investment is necessary to make a large change in the long run. The development and implementation of new green methods require the creation and installation of new equipment and related practices. Everything from new products, staff training, and even new factories and chemical plants. While these costly changes can pay off in the long run, it may be better to opt for less costly changes. It’s all a matter of cost-benefit analysis, and determining how much benefit the given changes will create over time.
The Limited Benefits of Waterless Urinals
A new trend in water conservation is the advent of waterless urinals with costly installations. The urinals function in various ways to dispose of waste with zero or minimum water usage and odor. They use oil traps, barriers, microbial blocks, or periodic ultra low-flow flushing to eliminate or reduce water usage. They often also require less cleaning and infrequent replacement of the mechanisms, adding up to significant water and cost savings over time.
However, while the urinals might sound great, they are still not the easiest or most efficient way to save water. There are many conditions that need to be met in order for them to function properly. And even when those conditions are met, they won’t save as much water as other less-costly changes. Going straight for waterless urinals might be overly green compared to more sensible initial changes. Preventing leaks and installing flow restrictions in taps and showers is cheaper, easier, and saves huge amounts of water. We should be selective about what we put effort into, think about which changes have the greatest impacts with regards to time, money, and resources spent.
Sacrificing One Resource to Conserve Another
One of the most common problems in green practices is trading the use of one resource for another. This is common and often acceptable when one of problem takes immediate priority over the other. An example in the auto-industry is opting for electric cars over those that run on fossil fuels, even though the waste of batteries from electric cars comes with its own problems.
Recycling: Problem Mitigation Rather Than Solving
Conserving natural resources and recycling man-made products are two ways we can stay environmentally friendly in our day to day lives. But these two activities are actually somewhat at odds with one another. The recycling process itself uses additional resources, and may even encourage people to use more resources than necessary because they are under the impression that recycling solves the resource-use problem.
But recycling can only be performed on certain man-made materials, and it is fairly water and fuel intensive. Although more water and fuel are necessary to manufacture products from raw materials, additional resources are still used during various stages of the recycling process. So, while it’s still better to recycle than to throw away and create entirely new products, we do need to realize recycling only mitigates the problem, and it is better to use less physical products to begin with. One way to avoid recycling while simultaneously reducing material waste is to use concentrated cleaning products with refillable containers.
Quality vs. Quantity
Not all green products endure rigorous product testing, meaning they might not work as well as conventional products. If more time and effort needs to be put in, and maybe even more of the product used to get the job done, then the benefits could be outweighed.
The Importance of Quality Testing
In general, milder products require more frequent use to prevent the need for harsher but more effective substances. This applies to many green products, and could potentially increase total labor time and resources used. If you need to use three times the amount of a mild chemical to replace a chemical that is twice as harsh, then is it really more green?
Testing the quality of products ensures that they either work just as well as other conventional products with harsher chemicals, or that they at least do not require more total time or resources to get the job done. When shopping for products, look for green seals and certifications that specifically list product testing.
Quality vs. Quantity doesn’t only apply to products, but also to work input. The amount of time and effort that staff put into their work affects the amount of energy and resources used. It also affects the health and moral of the workers. Thus, it might sound like less time spent cleaning would save on energy and resources. But, it can actually just create uneven and inefficient work.
For example, some hotels have tried to implement programs where guests can opt for less frequent cleaning schedules to save resources.However, less frequent cleaning decreases the staff’s hours and pay. It also necessitates more intense cleaning for heavier soiling that builds up over the longer periods of time between cleans. This doesn’t necessarily mean the idea of less frequent cleaning won’t ever work. But we do need to consider if certain actions might be too green for the good of the workers and the efficiency of the work.
The Importance of Both Natural and Indoor Environments
Not only can green practices have unintended effects on the natural environment like the atmosphere or rain forests, but they can also have effects on the environments within our homes and work spaces. Some green practices might save resources, while being detrimental to our health and safety. And ultimately, the main reason we care about the natural environment is because it affects our well-being.
The Hidden Dangers of Hand Dryers
For example, air-powered hand dryers have become widespread in many public bathrooms and work spaces. They flaunt supposed benefits of greatly reducing paper waste and associated costs from paper towels. In theory, they leave bathrooms cleaner, wallets fuller, and forests intact.
However, dryers not only contribute to the resource trade-off mentioned earlier (using more electricity in place of paper), but they also have a distinct effect on the indoor environment in which they are located. Some recent studies show that dryers actually significantly increase the amount of bacteria on peoples’ hands immediately after washing them. And the air flow of the dryers also spreads the bacteria around the room to other surfaces. Rather than cleaning our hands, they could be contributing to the spread of disease.
Finding the Right Balance
In situations such as these, we need to be conscious of trade-offs and potential negative consequences that might make green actions a little too green. Even with the best intentions we could end up doing further damage to the environment and ourselves. Staying mindful of these sometime subtle effects can help us strike a balance with nature for a future that is truly greener for the planet and everything that calls it home.